So is Doctor Who all about a vain old time-traveler who goes around dragging people into horrible danger just to stoke his ego? Does the Doctor create a vast dark legend about himself as a mighty warrior and then draft ordinary people to be bit-players in his huge saga?
We've gotten some pretty dark views of the Doctor, and the Doctor-companion relationship, lately. But luckily today's episode, "Closing Time," gave us a much more positive view — the Doctor saves one of his friends one last time, and along the way he shows how he does actually make people better. Spoilers ahead...
If we're to believe the Doctor's statements in "The Impossible Astronaut" (and some stuff the production team has said in interviews), then "Closing Time" takes place a full 200 years after last week's "The God Complex," in terms of the Doctor's own timeline. The longest gap between Doctor Who stories ever — and in the meantime, the Doctor has had time to go through all the adventures in River Song's little blue diary, and he and River have had a whole life together. (This also makes the Eleventh Doctor possibly the most long-lived Doctor since William Hartnell. But of course, if you believe Stephen Moffat, the Doctor "has no clue" how old he actually is.)
Anyway, a long time has passed between stories — long enough for the Doctor to meet Jim the Fish and have a ton of other adventures with River that we'll probably never get to see. And now the Doctor is preparing, at last, to go meet his certain death by the side of Lake Silencio in Utah. The Doctor has basically given up on being the Doctor at this point — he says "I am done saving them" as he attempts to skulk away in the TARDIS instead of investigating signs of a Cyberman incursion, and generally seems weary of being an epic hero.
So it's a good thing that the friend the Doctor goes to visit is Craig, who's had pretty much an unambiguously sweet relationship with the Time Lord. Craig knows that the safest place during an alien crisis is right by the Doctor's side — it's the people who get separated from the Doctor who tend to get toasted. And Craig knows the Doctor is a good bloke, and he's here to help, and stuff. "You always win. You always survive," he says. And he convinces the Doctor that his days of saving people, and working with a companion, aren't quite over yet.
And then the Doctor beats himself up later, because the Cybermat nearly kills Craig and Alfie, and it's his fault. And he nearly descends into self-pity and self-loathing because he puts people in danger — until Craig points out that the obvious: if the Doctor hadn't shown up, there still would have been Cybermen in Craig's neighborhood and nobody to fight them. And in fact, if the Doctor hadn't been around, the world would be a disaster. And Craig goes to save the Doctor because he needs someone by his side, and he just won't admit it. And Craig owes the Doctor because he wouldn't have his family if it wasn't for the Doctor.
The last time the Doctor decided to travel on his own and felt as though he didn't want to inflict his lifestyle on a companion, we got the ultra-insane "Waters of Mars" and a general sense of the Doctor going way off the rails. But this time around, we get a surprisingly sweet, optimistic reminder of how the Doctor is a force for good, at the personal level as well as the cosmic level.
And he helps in this story, as well. Poor old Craig needs to learn to believe in himself and his parenting instincts as a dad, and win Stormageddon's trust and respect. So the whole time the Doctor is investigating the Cyberman invasion, he's also giving Craig a boost, and showing Craig little things like wearing a papoose so that he will be quicker when Stormageddon summons him.
After a couple of fairly intense, serious episodes, "Closing Time" was a welcome shot of comedy, and a worthy sequel to last year's "The Lodger." You have to love the baby deciding his name is Stormageddon, Lord of All, and that everybody besides his mother is either "not-mum" or "peasants." And the Doctor going to work in a shop selling toys, was a brilliant sequence. (And is this the first time Star Trek has been explicitly name-checked on Doctor Who?) I'm honestly not going to be able to list all the hilarious bits in this episode, but there were tons — some of the best comedy writing we've seen on Doctor Who in ages. (Oh, and a few shout-outs to Doctor Who's past: "You've had this place redecorated. I don't like it" from "The Five Doctors," and the mini-poem "Not a rat, a Cybermat" from the novelization of "Revenge of the Cybermen." Oh, and the Cyber-chop from "The Moonbase.")
The one thing that threatened to bug me about this episode was the overabundance of "bromance is homoerotic" jokes — the old Simon Pegg/Nick Frost chestnut about two nerdy guys having a close friendship that everybody thinks is an actual romance. Everybody who sees the Doctor and Craig with Stormageddon thinks that they're a family, etc. But at least the story pushes this theme so far, it reaches almost absurdist levels, with the Doctor threatening to kiss Craig and calling Craig "my baby." Plus it's all so good-natured, it's hard to be annoyed.
The other thing that did bug me a tiny bit was the way the episode leans heavily on stereotypes — including the clueless dad who's hopeless with his baby, and all of the assorted shopgirls who don't quite understand anything — not to mention Sheila. And the idea that the Doctor's shushing trick works on babies, plus that one shopgirl and the security guard, is a bit hideous. As if certain dumb grown-ups are just like babies. Still, all in all, this was a pretty clever fun episode.
So in the end, Craig's newfound parenting instincts save the day, because the sight of his baby is so powerful that it causes him to overcome the Cyber-conditioning and screw up the whole Cyber-plan. (Although this flies in the face of everything we've ever learned about Cyber-conversion, in which Craig ought to have been partially dismembered and his brain surgically altered — but maybe the Cybermen are on such low power, they're going with the low-rent bargain basement version of Cyber-conversion.) And yes, Craig "blew them up with love." The Doctor, in turn, uses up his final hours to clean up Craig's apartment instead of going and seeing the miraculous Alignment of Exador.
But didn't the Doctor screw up his real companions? Like Amy and Rory? Apparently not. Amy is a fashion model now! (Rose Tyler becomes the defender of the Earth, Sarah Jane Smith teams up with two alien supercomputers to protect the planet, Martha Jones joins U.N.I.T. and becomes a freelance alien-hunter... and Amy is a fashion model. Huh.) At least Amy seems happy, and the Doctor can stalk her from a safe distance instead of wandering up and saying hi like a normal person.
But in spite of Craig helping the Doctor to see that he's not really all that terrible, and he really does help people and ennoble them and stuff, he still can't escape his doom — so at the end of the episode, he puts on Craig's cowboy hat and goes off to get killed, and it's a weirdly naff scene in which the Doctor gives a little speech to three perplexed children, who still remember it as adults years later, and their remembrances in turn are read by River thousands of years in the future, when she's just finished her PhD in Doctorology. She's a doctor in being obsessed with the Doctor. I'm dying to know what her thesis was.
Anyway, River is puzzling over her primary sources — which are on paper, with photos attached, even though it's the far future — when Madame Kovarian shows up and announces that now that River has her doctorate, it's time for her to go fulfill her destiny. (Why now? Why not when she was a little girl?) And even though River seems totally normal, Madame Kovarian says that she and the alien leaders of the Silence have messed with her "pretty little head" so much that she'll do whatever they want. It appears that River has been brainwashed many, many times over the years by the Silence, and they're her "owners." "You never really escaped us," Madame Kovarian says, with a giant pantomime leer from her one eye.
But in spite of all this insidious alien mind control, River still struggles and has to be physically dragged away and put inside her deadly space suit at the bottom of a lake. Basically, the most rubbish alien brainwashing ever. Cue the annoying/creepy children singing.
(Maybe next week's episode will have ten or fifteen minutes of River just hanging out at the bottom of the lake, watching the fish going past, and wishing she'd brought a book? We'll find out soon enough...)